Romanesque Style Period & the Abbey Church of St. Dennis

B y S i n g u l a r N e w m a n

During the Romanesque Period, from roughly 1000 to 1137 A.D.1), dubbed so because of its alluring Roman style it was copying, in particular that of vaulting, and dome construction, many different styles and innovations of building technologies and architecture were being discovered in various places like France, Britain and Italy, but each place had added its own flavor to the mixture. The emergence of the Gothic style as it began to be called had its strongest roots in the Kingdom of France.

It was not until the construction of the Abbey Church of St. Denis2) that pure Gothic Architecture truly began to take shape. Here at this church in a region called Ile-di-France in northern France the various architectural innovations were brought together and formed the Gothic style. They emerged from the mind of a genius master builder and Abbot named Suger3).

Abbot Suger was a very innovative and energetic man who is said to be responsible for this advancement in architecture. In the year 1122, Suger was elected abbot of the French Royal Monastery of St. Denis4). As seen in the movie Cathedral, St. Denis was not much more than a pile of rubbles at this time. The church was falling in disrepair, overcrowded, and beginning to decay. The original building was built in 775 as a Carolingian basilica5). Revisions had been made in 832 to enlarge the eastern chapel, but little work had been done since then. Sugar had aspirations to rebuild the church, yet had other matters that needed his attention before anything could be done. The Abbey was in financial trouble and faced a lot of criticism for the religious practices of the monks from Bernard of Clairvaux6).

As Suger worked to strengthen the church’s finances and reputation, he researched and developed impressive new technologies that could fulfill his desires for the betterment of the Arch. Thankfully, Abbot Suger succeeded marvelously in his quest.

The main draw of the arch is that it allows the builder to suspend stone on top of the floor below and create large encompassing spaces that function like a dome yet need much less material and labor to construct. The main problem however is that just like the dome the barrel vault arcuated7) construction needs large supporting buttresses. An example of the large buttress system in usage at the time can be seen in the original Roman Basilica of Saint Peters8). It uses large columns and heavy walls that allow little natural light in due to their size, needed to hold up the large dome above.

The original Basilica of Saint Peters located at the Vatican, Italy, built in the the fourth-century, begun by the Emperor Constantine9) between 326 and 333 A.D. has a typical basilica Latin Cross plan with an apse at the front next to the chancel, a wide nave and two aisles on either side. It ends up looking on the hefty size and the light quality suffers. In its defense, the sheer size of the building has to be built accordingly in order to support such mass.

To summarize, Romanesque style lasted from 500 to 1200 AD As Rome spread across Europe, heavier, stocky Romanesque architecture with rounded arches emerged. Gothic Architecture emerged between 1100 to 1450 AD when Innovative builders such as the Abbot Suger, created the great cathedrals of Europe. Renaissance Architecture started in between 1400 to 1600 A.D. A return to classical ideas ushered an “age of “awakening” in Italy, France, and England. Baroque Architecture happened between1600 to 1830 A.D.

In Italy, the Baroque style10) is reflected in opulent and dramatic churches with irregular shapes and extravagant ornamentation such as La Maddalena11) in Rome built in 1598. In France, the highly ornamented Baroque style combines with Classical restraint. Russian aristocrats were impressed by Versailles12) in France, and incorporated Baroque ideas in the building of St. Petersburg. Elements of the elaborate Baroque style are found throughout Europe.

Returning to monsignor Suger, he is credited with the invention of the flying buttresses that allowed his new cathedral to reach higher, look cooler and allow more natural light to filter in where the old bricks used to stand in to support the wall. The flying buttress13) allowed Suger to build a formidable cathedral that was copied non- stop by all other builders that followed him. Still the original in my opinion is unbeatable.

A fine example however can be found in Westminster Abbey in London14) England built in 1560 A.D. It maintains a cross plan with side isles, flying buttresses and large detailed ornamental, stained glass windows that allow very much natural light inside, creating a wondrous experience. Rich people were buried inside chapels and monks and people associated with the Abbey were buried in the Cloisters and other areas. The Cathedral has two large towers flanking the narthex15). The difference is that the French usually built their towers directly on top of the narthex.

Italy added a flavor to the French and English and separated the towers and the baptistery as well, creating a more open architecture and that also simplified construction. I am referring to the leaning tower of Pisa naturally. Started in the year 1173A.D. it became completed in the year 1655. The bell tower begun to sink and the builders changed its angle to correct this. The plaza that includes the scarcely paved and partly grassed area is dominated by four great religious edifices, that of the Duomo, the Leaning Tower (the cathedral's campanile), the Baptistry16) and the Camposanto17) where the congregation gather to hear the clergy. The Camposanto dome is capped by a cupola at the intersection of the nave and the transept. The baptistery is the largest baptistery in Italy. Its circumference measures over 300 feet. Including the statue of St. John the Baptist that rests on top of the dome, it is a few inches higher than the Leaning Tower.

The portal, facing the façade of the cathedral, is flanked by two classical columns on the sides. The inner jambs are executed in Byzantine style18). The lintel is divided in two tiers. The lower one depicts several episodes in the life of St. John the Baptist, while the upper one shows Christ between the Madonna and St John the Baptist, flanked by angels and the evangelists. This proves that Italians just have to be different at everything they do.

In conclusion, the Romanesque style provided the world with some of it's most beautiful architectural treasures. This beautiful mixture of ancient Architecture and more modern construction techniques, resulted in one of the most appreciated and duplicated and imitated styles in history. It represents master craftsmanship and royal classicism at its best. Rich, ornate and extravagantly decorated with sculptures and works of art, this building form can be interpreted as trying to set in stone the best this world has to offer.


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